Finding feminism

I discovered that I was a pro-feminist kinda guy quite late – probably sometime in my mid-20s.

Through most of my teens, I bought the party line on feminism quite happily: that it was exclusive, that it was redundant and that, even at its best, it had nothing to offer the boy-about-town, beyond an undeserved sense of guilt for atrocities and indignities inflicted by other members of the same phenotype. As a teen, I embraced the notion that feminism was a closed club and that if it didn’t want me, then I didn’t want it.

More than a decade later, I can look over those half-formed impressions with a sense of abstract distaste, but not necessarily regret. They comprised the early steps in a journey that is still ongoing. As I approach 30, I can happily call myself a pro-feminist man. It’s a term that comes with some caveats, many of which can be traced back to earlier roots.

Feminist membership card resized3.pngAs a younger man, I believed that feminism was a discrete body with a firm membership policy; I believed that it broadly rejected male voices, even those raised in agreement, to the detriment of its intellectual and cultural well-being. I had come to consider feminism primarily as a support network rather than the vibrant, scintillating force of intellectual and social upheaval that it had been in the time of my parents.

Although those beliefs contain elements of both truth and ignorance, my current attitudes spring directly from them. The ignorance is, I accept, rather more conspicuous. The movement that produced Gender Trouble as I approached my early teens surely did not deserve to be considered in any way intellectually or culturally lacking. What was hard for me to accept as a boy was that feminism could marginalise male voices and still do just fine – a peculiar perspective, when male society had been marginalising female voices for generations, but had nevertheless produced great works of art, science and philosophy.

Years later, though, and feminism is still – to me – a body that has little need for male voices. Part of the reason why I append the pro-suffix to my feminist leanings is because I still genuinely believe that feminism has to be rooted in the female experience, that the core of the movement has to be political and intellectual space that is purely for women, and that even the most sympathetic of men must first accept that there is a section of the movement that must necessarily be closed to him.

It is hypocritical to build consensus around an ideal of positive masculinity without seeking to challenge those aspects of masculinity which remain deeply and negatively entrenched

My earlier, sniffy dismissal of feminism as a support network contained seeds of truth. The intellectual framework and sympathetic companionship of other women can offer great support to those who have suffered from the excesses of the patriarchal society. Where I went wrong was to consider that a failing, or to believe that it in any way undermined the rigour of the movement or its capacity to agitate for social change.

I will say this for my teenage self: I never once swallowed the lie that feminism is necessarily anti-men. To this day, my own feminism is distinctly pro-men, in fact. A world in which women are empowered, free and unthreatened is one that carries distinct advantages for men, both in terms of emotional and material well-being and in the alleviation of ‘Dude Culture’ – a social movement that I moved away from earlier and much more decisively than I did feminism. I mention this largely because, as unattractive as it may sound, objective, utilitarian self-interest did play a non-negligible part in my reconciliation with feminism in my early 20s and remains a component today.

Much of my relationship to feminism is straightforward; many aspects of male privilege harm men, at the very least because having unjust power has a tendency to corrupt and create perverse incentives.

The conflict of interest which obstructs many men from allying with feminism, however, is that feminism requires men to take responsibility for rape culture. As a teenager I baulked at the notion of accepting any measure of culpability for the perpetrators of violent crime based on shared gender appalled and alienated me.

It also threw up an element of my own male hypocrisy. I wanted to consider the problem of male culture on a unified level, but was unwilling to consider male-perpetrated crimes as anything other than the work of individual, disturbed men. At some level this is understandable. White men in particular have a long and successful history of being treated as individuals, rather than being defined by their demographic, and as a group we have a tendency to resist anything that erodes our privilege. But it is nevertheless hypocritical to try to build consensus around an ideal of positive masculinity without seeking to challenge those aspects of masculinity which remain deeply and negatively entrenched.

This is slowly changing, however, and happily I can now see signs that many men are prepared to internalise the idea that rape culture is a male problem to be collectively challenged and confronted, and organise around it. The Men Can Stop Rape campaign is a superb example of this and points the way to a pro-male, pro-feminist culture that stands a real chance at starting to undermine generations of inculcated privilege. It has also come into being as I have reached a point in my own life where I have the confidence and self-belief to challenge the behaviour of others around me. It’s not just that men can stop rape, it’s that we have a responsibility to do so, and as these support structures become more entrenched it will hopefully become easier to move in that direction.

You don’t get a cookie for saying the right thing or having the right opinions

The final major obstacle that my feminism has had to overcome as I have matured is the notion that feminism is somehow redundant. In some ways feminism is the victim of its own success; over the last century it has achieved some stunning victories and, as my younger self might have said, the argument can be made that more progress needs to be made in analogous movements such as those for racial or LGBT equality. Many young men remain unaware of the inequalities that persist at all levels of society, not to mention the way that inequalities of different types intersect.

A young man can be told about these things but, for many, a full understanding can only come through the short, sharp shock of experience. For me, the realisation came when I discovered that the central park of the city I was living in was a frequent venue for sexual harassment, indecent exposure and sexual assault. I asked my friends about this; every single woman said that she had experienced some unpleasantness there and thus avoided it, while every single man confessed to having had as little idea of its occurrence as me. The existence of this shadow world, which existed in broad daylight but to which a full half of the population were utterly oblivious, blew my mind.

Feminist boxer shorts.pngFrom that came a realisation: that if you acknowledge that women are harassed, disadvantaged and victimised because of their gender, and if you want that to no longer be the case, then there is no convincing reason not to consider yourself pro-feminist. Feminist theory, of course, has many shades and abstractions beyond that, but as a core principle it’s hard to argue or dispute. Feminism isn’t a club, to which membership is required; you don’t get a badge and you don’t get a cookie for saying the right thing or having the right opinions. It’s something that you are, no matter how late you come to it. And ultimately, the only objective measure of how useful you are to the movement is what you do.

There’s no shortage of young men who are as alienated from feminism as I was. That’s not the fault of feminism; the movement does not have an obligation to mould itself around the weird protuberances of the patriarchy. Perhaps it’s one of the areas where pro-feminist men can really help; helping those young men who regard feminism as a threat to recognise where their fear comes from, and how self-defeating it ultimately is. But in a way, those young men are a hopeful sign. It shows a willingness to treat feminism as a genuine social option, and even if that manifests in a negative and half-formed way, it indicates that there is a debate there that can be fought and won. Such was my own journey, and it must necessarily be considered incomplete; I have little doubt than in another decade I will look back on these thoughts with a weary shake of the head. After all, every privilege unpacked is a fresh revelation.

Feminist membership card is an original for this feature. Picture of boxer shorts is a modified image based upon a picture by Flickr user

Josh Hadley is currently occupying his time by making jokes about George Osborne. He heard that George Osborne likes to bake puppies into delicious confections; all he ever seems to talk about is how he wants to cake mutts